Clinical psychology intern Iris McMillan, MA, fell in love with higher education in the U.S. during a chilly year in Erie, Pennsylvania, where the German high school student spent a year abroad and toured several American college campuses. “I saw the different research facilities, and I thought, ‘I can see myself conducting research.’”
McMillan ended up returning to Germany to complete high school and ultimately decided to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology at Alpen-Adria University in Austria. But before too long, she made her way back to the U.S., this time to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology at UNC-Charlotte in warm and sunny North Carolina. This year, she’s completing her doctoral internship with Duke Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.
As McMillan got deeper into her studies, her intrigue with research expanded to a desire to integrate both research and clinical practice into her career as a psychologist. She’s particularly drawn to working with children and adolescents who have co-occurring mental and physical health concerns.
“I’m interested in different factors that contribute to individuals' experiences of health and well-being—so thinking about how policies or other system-level factors, environmental factors like neighborhoods, social factors, and cultural factors shape the health and well-being of the populations we serve.”
— Iris McMillan, MA
“One reason I love [working with these patients and their families] is because I’m interested in different factors that contribute to individuals' experiences of health and well-being—so thinking about how policies or other system-level factors, environmental factors like neighborhoods, social factors, and cultural factors shape the health and well-being of the populations we serve,” McMillan reflected.
Passion for Equity & Inclusion Leads to Advocacy
McMillan is driven by a passion for promoting health equity and inclusive, whole-person care, not only in her research and clinical work, but also in her advocacy efforts, which she initiated with some of the clients she cared for in graduate school practicums.
She began asking herself, “What can I do to help them navigate systems that are incredibly hard to navigate?” She noted, “Often that would be finding resources in their communities, connecting them with other health resources, or advocating for additional supports and services at schools.”
As her training progressed, McMillan developed a clearer understanding of system-level barriers and health disparities, and she sought ways to deepen her impact beyond individual patients. She started to provide education to other medical team members in the health care settings where she worked. For example, she discussed with other providers how to make clinical spaces more inclusive of individuals with diverse gender identities and how to open up conversations about lived experiences related to minority stress.
McMillan eventually found her way to legislative advocacy opportunities through a social justice affinity group in the Society for Pediatric Psychology, where she learned about a virtual advocacy summit offered by the American Psychological Association. As part of the summit, she received training in engaging legislators on issues relevant to behavioral health. She and fellow psychologists and trainees from across the state then met with North Carolina Congress representatives to advocate for federal funding for the Graduate Psychology Education Program, which aims to enhance training for clinical psychology doctoral students and help build the psychology workforce.
“I got to talk about not only how this funding program had helped me grow as a clinician, but more importantly, how programs like this are really critical for increasing access to mental health and behavioral health resources for our most vulnerable and underserved populations,” McMillan said.
A Changing Field Evokes Excitement
McMillan feels the field of psychology is continuing to evolve, and she’s confident her well-rounded training will equip her to keep up with the changes. In fact, she finds it “exciting to be part of that bigger change, seeing more of a progression towards health equity, system-level changes, making behavioral health services more accessible, and being more integrated in different medical spaces.”
She’s also encouraged by seeing that psychologists are increasingly embracing treatment approaches that center diversity, cultural humility, and intersectionality.
The versatility of skills McMillan is developing, she says, will prepare her to work in a variety of settings, but she envisions herself as a scientist-practitioner-advocate on a multidisciplinary team in an academic medical center. She plans to specialize in identity-affirming approaches to mental health care treatment for youth populations—a perspective she weaves into all of her clinical interactions and many of her conversations with fellow trainees and supervisors.
Diverse Opportunities & Caring Faculty
As an intern in the program’s pediatric psychology track, McMillan has dabbled in a wide range of rotations: she’s spent time conducting neuropsychological assessments, working in the eating disorders clinic, and providing psychological consultations for hospitalized children and their families, to name just a few of the training settings. Finding intersections across the different rotations was something she “never anticipated and truly appreciates” about her internship experience, she said.
“I could tell that faculty members at Duke are very passionate about life-long learning, mentoring, and helping their trainees accomplish whatever they want to achieve.”
— Iris McMillan, MA
This variety of opportunities is actually what attracted McMillan to Duke’s clinical psychology internship—combined with the strong impression the program’s faculty left on her during the interview process. “I could tell that faculty members at Duke are very passionate about life-long learning, mentoring, and helping their trainees accomplish whatever they want to achieve,” she recalled. “This strongly resonated with me. It felt very much aligned with my own values, and overall, it just felt like a good place to continue to grow.”
McMillan encourages clinical psychology doctoral students to keep their values front and center when considering internship options, and to choose a program that meshes with their values. A self-professed lifelong learner, she also advises keeping an open mind about new experiences. She noted, “I believe that I would never be doing the type of work that I’m doing now if I hadn’t tried out new things.”
Life Beyond School & Work
When McMillan isn’t seeing patients, attending training sessions, or engrossed in a research project, you’ll most likely find her outside—hiking, running, or spending time with family and friends—or hanging out with her husband and cat.